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The odd couple.

Peter and Paul were a match made in purgatory, but the wisdom of the church has them sharing a feast day, a book in the Bible, and a place of prominence in the tradition.

THEY ARE TWO MEN who clearly don't belong together, not even in the same room if either can help it. They would shrink from the idea of a shared feast, which we celebrate blithely next month nonetheless. They are not the same kind of person at all, in terms of class or life experience or politics. Try to imagine Paul of Tarsus going fishing! Try to envision Simon Peter of Galilee writing theological treatises! It's a match made in purgatory; yet Peter and Paul are stuck with each other. It's part of the price you pay for having a truly catholic, universal church.

Blame it on the Acts of the Apostles. The book itself is an aberrant thing in the New Testament, sandwiched between the Jesus stories and the collected letters. It's been called a history of the early church, but it's obviously an idealized version of "The Way We Were," if you compare the events with their counterparts in the letters of Paul. Acts is a spin job, done by the great spinmeister himself: Luke the good doctor, a crony of Paul's, at least, and possibly an admirer of Peter's as well. Although other disciples and their heroic deeds figure in Acts--John, Stephen, and James get more than a mention--the bulk of the book follows the acts of Peter and Paul, in that order.

But we can't really look at Acts as purely biographical material either. Luke's purpose is connected to his overall scheme across his two literary works, which scholars tend to lump together as Luke-Acts. The Gospel of Luke has been called "the gospel of the Son," and Acts "the gospel of the Spirit." They are not stories about human achievements but about God's activity on our behalf.

If there is a star of the show in Luke's works, it's the Word of God on a journey to center stage. In Luke, God's Word makes it to Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world, in the person of Jesus himself. In Acts, God's Word travels to the center of the known world through Paul's journey to testify in Rome. Once the gospel comes to Rome, the story ceases abruptly. Luke abandons the story of Paul before we learn the results of his trial or the circumstances of his death. To Luke, these are minor details. The story has been told when God's Word "achieves the purpose for which it was sent." No biographer of mere human exploits would ever leave Paul's fate hanging in the balance so cavalierly.

But this is not to say that the people chronicled in Luke's work are irrelevant to his purposes. Peter and Paul are not only his heroes but become prototypes for leadership within the church. One might say that much of church history over the past two millennia could be appreciated through an exploration of these two monolithic characters. The two great tensions of history--a draw to stability from the center, a movement outward toward a wider field of possibility--are illustrated by these two incompatible and yet entirely interdependent personalities. Let's look at Peter first, because he is first to appear on the scene.

A CONTEMPORARY OF JESUS, FROM THE SAME NECK OF THE woods in Galilee, Peter hadn't traveled far nor studied much before he encountered the Lord. Born in Bethsaida and living in Capernaum with his wife and mother-in-law, Peter worked the family business with his dad and brother Andrew. You might say he was dug in; embedded in two generations of family and doubtless planning for the third. A young man like Peter probably didn't have much more to look forward to. Nobody got rich fishing on the Sea of Galilee.

Peter wasn't a deep thinker, but he was a man of great feeling. Loyal, impetuous, and quite the talker. He was the sort of guy who gets along well in a community and is roundly approved of. This is fortunate, because he wasn't much of a fisher. The recorded occasions of his efforts only produced fish under divine intervention. What was gain for the gospel, it would appear, was no loss to the fishing industry.

The reports of Peter's call to discipleship vary. In the Gospel of John, Peter's brother Andrew "got religion" first, signing on with John the Baptist and later switching allegiances when even John admitted Jesus was the One he was announcing. Andrew, according to this source, went home and got Peter, not wanting his brother to miss out on salvation history in the making.

The synoptic version, perhaps better known, is the story of Jesus coming along the shore of the lake in person and calling out to Peter, Andrew, and the two sons of Zebedee as well. Perhaps it was a lousy day for fishing, anyway; or perhaps these young men were getting bored with their repetitive, dead-end village life. Whatever the reason, Jesus caught the biggest catch of the day with three words, "Come follow me."

Peter has the largest speaking part of any disciple in the four gospels. He asks more questions, makes more spontaneous professions of faith, and shows more initiative in action than the other 11 combined. He is one of three, along with James and John, who gets included in Jesus' inner circle of friends on momentous occasions like the Transfiguration and the final night in the Garden of Gethsemane. Is it because Jesus regards him as a closer friend or a better lieutenant?

Does Peter get more airtime because he initiates more or because he was the acknowledged spokesperson among the apostles? The gospels may attribute more attention to Peter simply because the writers were already aware that he was to emerge as the leader of the church from Pentecost onward. He would become a healer, preacher, and decision maker like no other on the far side of Easter.

But Peter was not only a charismatic and charming fellow; like the rest of us, he had a dark side, too. His loyalty and courage only went as far as the security of his own skin. Scratch the surface and you find a coward. That's why, although he would be remembered forever as the rock upon which the church was built, he is likewise known as the one who denied his Lord. Three times, no less. It would take a threefold confession of faith--"`Simon Peter, do you love me?' `Yes, Lord, I love you'" (John 21:15-17)--to cover his immense shame for being the one who was entrusted with so much and could withstand so little.

PAUL, ON THE OTHER HAND, HAD HIS OWN HARD LEGACY TO drag behind him, like Marley's chains in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Peter had merely denied his Lord; Paul had persecuted him in his early hatred of the church. It would take a full-blown Resurrection appearance of Christ himself to knock Paul to his knees. The conversion experience was so intense, it made him blind and sick.

How did Paul come to find himself on the wrong side of church history, only to become the brightest star of Acts? He was born within a decade after Jesus, but in the city of Tarsus, and was a man of great cities most of his life. Paul never mentions small-town concerns or shows interest in the countryside; his writings are as devoid of such references as Jesus' teachings are brimming with them. He seems strangely isolated too, never mentioning family, a man alone. Only his sister's boy is mentioned in Acts (23:16), but Paul presents himself as rootless, bound only to the gospel.

Scholars suggest that Paul would have been incapable of attaining his status among the Pharisees or within the Sanhedrin without having taken a wife according to custom, preferably marrying the daughter of a religious official. So it is possible he was divorced, and one can speculate the divorce was precipitated by his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. En route to arrest Christians, his full-hearted surrender to Jesus would have made him loathsome to his orthodox Jewish wife. Sometimes you really can't go home again. This would explain some of his apprehension and even arrogance about those who were marrying and being given in marriage while the gospel was consuming the world around them like flames.

Paul was educated and a citizen of both Jewish and Roman society. Had he and Peter ever dined together, Peter would have been the guy belching and spitting on the floor, while Paul coughed politely into his napkin and knew which fork to use for dessert. If Paul had any social disability, it was his height. Admitting he was "weak in appearance," Paul was most likely undersized for a man who would be a giant of Christianity for all time.

Paul was a man of ideas, and he debated the cause of Jesus Christ with his own Jewish peers as well as with folks across the Roman Empire as far as Europe. And he not only preached, but he wrote things down. Of the 13 letters attributed to Paul in the Bible, at least seven are generally recognized as his, and it's certain he wrote others that are lost to us. Contrast this with the two letters attributed to Peter: the first one probably not by his hand, and the second one definitely not.

These two apostles were polarized even in their own day, as Paul acknowledges in his letters. Not only did they debate the necessity of Jewish observances for incoming Gentile Christians--Peter representing the conservative right and Paul the radical left--but in the perception of those around them as well, early believers were choosing camps: "Each of you is saying, `I belong to Paul,' or `I belong to Apollos,' or `I belong to Cephas' [Peter]" (1 Cor 1:12).

It's more than curiosity that brings us back to their tug-of-war now. In the Easter season, the lectionary focuses on the Acts of the Apostles as the main story for the assembly. For once in the liturgical year, the first reading manages to upstage the gospel, the readings from John serving as a backdrop to the action of the community of faith. The events of Easter have made the church possible. And the events of Acts prove the words of Jesus true.

Acts presents these two charismatic figures, halos precariously balanced for our benefit, ready for their close-up on the stained glass window. Their personalities persist in the church: the laborer and the scholar, the family-oriented and the celibate, the one who was with Jesus from the start and the one who came only after a blinding reversal of direction.

Their stereotypes remain, too: the one who held the center of orthodoxy in Jerusalem while the other plunged out to the frontiers, creating new orbits of faithful and new ways of being faithful, mostly by experimenting with the form and being willing to adapt. Maybe Peter never trusted Paul; maybe Paul never understood a man like Peter. But the wisdom of the church has them sharing a feast day, a book in the Bible, and a place of prominence within the tradition. Oh, Peter gets the chair, to be sure. But Paul gets the last word.

ALICE CAMILLE, writer and adjunct faculty member at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California. She is the author of Seven Last Words (ACTA, 1999) and a collaborator on the homily series "This Sunday's Scripture," available through Twenty-Third Publications.
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Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2000
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